TIME war

Stop Pretending Drone Warfare Is Casualty-Free for America

The Invisible Front
The Invisible Front

Yochi Dreazen is managing editor of Foreign Policy. His new book, The Invisible Front: Love and Loss in an Era of Endless War, is out today.

Make no mistake: U.S. troops may not die during the fight against the Islamic State, but there will be a human cost

President Barack Obama has been delivering a single message again and again in the weeks since U.S. warplanes started bombing Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria: there will be no American boots on the ground in either country. Bombing the militants from the air rather than sending U.S. forces to fight them on the ground means that there is virtually no chance of U.S. casualties, which is crucial to maintaining the support of a war-weary American public.

But the White House is wrong to suggest that the current campaign will have no human costs. U.S. pilots may not get killed in combat or suffer physical wounds, but they aren’t immune to post-traumatic stress disorder and the other invisible wounds afflicting hundreds of thousands of veterans of the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Quite the opposite: reams of military-funded research has found that growing numbers of the pilots flying both manned fighter planes and armed drones are suffering from PTSD and depression because modern technology gives them uncomfortably vivid views of the carnage that results from one of their airstrikes. Have no illusions about the current campaign: U.S. troops may not die or suffer grievous physical injuries during the fight against the Islamic State, but it will exact a human toll all the same.

Drone operators are being hit particularly hard, and understanding why means taking a closer look at what those responsible for wielding the Obama administration’s weapon of choice against militants around the world see and experience every time they pick up the controls. The drone pilots typically work out of windowless trailers at bases in Nevada and California, spending 12 hours at a time hunched over video screens beaming back high-resolution imagery—better and clearer that what the average American watches on an HD TV—of the people and vehicles moving on the ground thousands of miles away. They track their targets for days or weeks before pulling the trigger. And that’s when, researchers say, the problems really start.

The results of the growing number of studies examining what long-distance war does to those who fight it are stark and striking. An Air Force survey in 2011 found that 41% of the Air Force personnel operating the unmanned aircrafts’ advanced surveillance systems reported “high operational stress,” along with 46% of those actually piloting the robotic planes.

The survey’s findings on post-traumatic stress disorder, one of the worst psychological maladies of the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, were just as striking. It concluded that 7% of the drone crews were in danger of developing PTSD, roughly half the proportion of troops returning from actual combat (the civilian rate is about 5%). PTSD is linked to depression and anxiety and is thought to be the primary reason for the military’s record suicide rate.

Last year, a study by the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center found that drone operators were at “similar risk” for mental health issues like PTSD, depression, and anxiety as the pilots of the manned warplanes and other aircraft flying over Iraq and Afghanistan from bases in the two war zones because they were experiencing — even from the safety of their trailers thousands of miles away — “witnessing traumatic experiences” like the deaths of U.S. troops or the militants they had just killed by pulling a trigger on what looks like a video game joystick.

To understand what that means in human terms, consider the story of former Airman First Class Brandon Bryant, who flew drones over Afghanistan. In searing interviews with GQ, Bryant described the strange intimacy of using infrared cameras to watch the purported militants he was tracking as they went about their daily lives: having sex with their wives on the rooftops of their houses or playing soccer with their children. Then he would pull his trigger, and some of those the men would disappear in a flash of white flame.

“The smoke clears, and there’s pieces of the two guys around the crater. And there’s this guy over here, and he’s missing his right leg above his knee. He’s holding it, and he’s rolling around, and the blood is squirting out of his leg, and it’s hitting the ground, and it’s hot,” Bryant told the magazine, remembering one strike. It took him a long time to die. I just watched him.”

Another time, Bryant was using his drone to fly over a convoy of Humvees traveling down a dusty road in a blood-soaked stretch of Iraq, looking out for possible buried bombs. He spotted something suspicious, but a communications problem prevented him from being able to warn the Humvee commander on the ground. He watched, powerless to help, as a bomb tore through one of the vehicles, killing three soldiers and wounding several others.

The vivid imagery of the deaths he’d caused and seen sent Bryant over the edge. He drank so much whiskey and Coke that he would pass out and sleep in a parking lot near his hometown. Once, his mother woke up to discover that he had left a loaded semi-automatic pistol. She immediately worried he was getting to the point where he would take his own life. He began to seek help and was quickly diagnosed with PTSD. Therapy eventually pulled him back from the brink, but it had been a close call.

Bryant’s invisible wound is all-too-common among the pilots flying manned and unmanned warplanes in war zones. The White House has been deliberately vague about how long the current campaign against the Islamic State will continue, but has warned that it could take years. That means America’s pilots will be at war for a long time to come, even if America’s ground troops are not. Those pilots may never set foot in Iraq or Syria, but they could become casualties of war all the same.

 

Yochi Dreazen is managing editor of Foreign Policy. He covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for The Wall Street Journal and has reported from more than 30 countries. His new book, The Invisible Front: Love and Loss in an Era of Endless War, is out today.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Military

Jihadist Bullets Are Often Made in the USA

These four rifle cartridges were made in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008 at the U.S.-government owned Lake City Army Ammunition Plant in Independence, Mo., before falling into ISIS hands, according to a new report. CAR

Survey of cartridges in the field reveals ISIS militants are using ammo sourced from China, the former Soviet Union — and the U.S.

Not only are the militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) tooling around their new “state” in U.S.-built vehicles recently plundered from the Iraqi army, but many of the bullets they’re firing come from the U.S. as well.

The news suggests just how fluid the battlefield straddling Iraq and Syria has become—and how efforts by other nations to help both beleaguered states can boomerang as their ammo often falls into enemy hands.

A private arms-tracing group vacuumed up more than 1,700 ISIS rounds in the Kurdish regions of northern Iraq and Syria from July 22 to Aug. 15. Nearly one of every five examined by experts from the independent Conflict Armament Research was manufactured in the U.S., according to a report released Monday by the group.

ISIS “forces appear to have acquired a large part of their current arsenal from stocks seized from, or abandoned by, Iraqi defence and security forces,” said the London-based CAR, a nonprofit research organization funded by the European Union. “The U.S. gifted much of this materiel to Iraq.”

CAR used stampings on the bottom of the cartridges—almost like fingerprints—to track their source.

Here’s where the cartridges collected by researchers were manufactured. CAR

The variety and age of the ammo used by ISIS fighters shows they have multiple means of supply. “China, the Soviet Union/Russian Federation, and the United States (US) are the top three manufacturing states represented in the sample,” CAR reported. “Ammunition in service with Iraqi and Syrian defence forces is also significant in the sample.”

CAR documented more than 300 U.S.-manufactured cartridges used by ISIS, mostly made between 2000 and 2010. Russian ammo was much newer—“as little as seven months from manufacture in Russia to capture from [ISIS] forces in Syria,” the group says. “Syrian defence forces are a plausible source of this ammunition.” At the other end of the timetable, CAR found a single Soviet cartridge dating back to 1945, the last year of World War II.

Most of the cartridges recovered in Syria were 30 years old and of Chinese and Soviet manufacture. “By contrast, the sample of ammunition recovered in Iraq is mainly U.S.-manufactured and comprises 5.56 x 45 mm cartridges,” CAR’s 16-page field report said. That’s the type “used in U.S.-supplied M16 and M4 assault rifles of the Iraqi defence and security forces.”

TIME Military

Greasing the Skids of War: Rethinking the Carter Doctrine

Obama Speaks At Disabled Veterans Memorial Dedication
President Obama speaks Sunday at a new memorial in Washington dedicated to disabled veterans. Pool / Getty Images

After 34 years—and 14 conflicts around the Middle East—it's time to wean the U.S. off Persian Gulf oil

As the U.S.-led war in Syria enters its third week, Americans can be excused for believing their nation has been shooting up the Middle East forever.

But they’d be wrong. It’s only been going on, off and on, since 34 years ago. That’s when, shortly after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, President Jimmy Carter told Moscow—and anyone else who might be listening—that Washington was willing to go to war to keep the Persian Gulf’s petroleum tap open and fueling the U.S. economy.

“The region which is now threatened by Soviet troops in Afghanistan is of great strategic importance: it contains more than two-thirds of the world’s exportable oil,” Carter said in his final State of the Union address on Jan. 23, 1980.

“The Soviet effort to dominate Afghanistan has brought Soviet military forces to within 300 miles of the Indian Ocean and close to the Strait of Hormuz, a waterway through which most of the world’s oil must flow,” he continued. “Let our position be absolutely clear: an attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”

So here we are, a generation later: the Soviets are out of Afghanistan, and America is in.

And even though the fight in Afghanistan is the nation’s longest war—and gets longer every day—it’s only one of many Islamic hotspots the U.S. has struck since Carter put down his Middle East marker. Former Army officer Andrew Bacevich, now at Columbia University, rattled them off Sunday in a column in the Washington Post:

Iran (1980, 1987-1988), Libya (1981, 1986, 1989, 2011), Lebanon (1983), Kuwait (1991), Iraq (1991-2011, 2014-), Somalia (1992-1993, 2007-), Bosnia (1995), Saudi Arabia (1991, 1996), Afghanistan (1998, 2001-), Sudan (1998), Kosovo (1999), Yemen (2000, 2002-), Pakistan (2004-) and now Syria.

Bacevich writes:

As America’s efforts to ‘degrade and ultimately destroy’ Islamic State militants extend into Syria, Iraq War III has seamlessly morphed into Greater Middle East Battlefield XIV. That is, Syria has become at least the 14th country in the Islamic world that U.S. forces have invaded or occupied or bombed, and in which American soldiers have killed or been killed. And that’s just since 1980.

President Obama acknowledged the toll Sunday, when he spoke at the dedication of the new American Veterans Disabled for Life memorial near the Capitol. “Let’s never rush into war, because it is America’s sons and daughters who bear the scars of war for the rest of their lives,” he said at the memorial, which honors the nation’s 4 million disabled vets. “Let us only send them into harm’s way when it’s absolutely necessary.” Perhaps there was a whiff of hindsight in his words.

But it may be foresight to revisit Carter’s declaration. While the hunger for oil remains relentless, the U.S. is far more energy independent today than it was in 1980. That should allow the U.S. to ease its addiction to Persian Gulf oil, which too often has served to grease the skids of war.

“This July the United States replaced Saudi Arabia as the world’s No. 1 oil producer,” Arthur Herman of the Hudson Institute wrote last month in National Review, “and virtually every industry study indicates that the trend will continue through the next two decades and beyond.” Much of the U.S. gain is due to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a production method that now accounts for roughly a third of U.S. oil and gas production.

Adds Herman:

The Islamic State’s use of captured Iraqi oil wells to pay for its murderous atrocities is just the latest and most blatant example of the oil-into-terrorism dynamic that’s ruled the Middle East for decades—and all, ironically, under the protective umbrella of American arms. Just keeping the region’s shipping lanes, including the Strait of Hormuz, open to tanker traffic costs the Pentagon on average $50 billion a year—a service that earns us the undying enmity of populations in that region even as their governments take our protection for granted.

Actually, U.S. taxpayers have spent close to $10 trillion to keep oil flowing to the world from Persian Gulf, based on a 2010 analysis from Roger Stern, an economic geographer at Princeton University.

Imagine if a slice of that had instead been invested to speed up U.S. energy independence. Wars would surely still unfold in the Middle East—as they will likely do so for generations—but it’d be bracing to watch them from the sidelines, for a change.

TIME Israel

Israeli Prime Minister: ISIS and Nuclear Iran Are ‘Twin Challenges’

Barack Obama Meets with PM Netanyahu of Israel
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel in the Oval Office of the White House on Oct. 1, 2014 in Washington, DC. Olivier Douliery—Corbis

"They all want to get rid of Israel on their way to the Great Satan"

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed support for President Barack Obama’s goal of defeating ISIS but said curbing Iran’s nuclear program is also top priority during a recent interview.

Netanyahu told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria in a segment airing Sunday that while ISIS is “growing by day,” its power lies not in its numbers, but in “the strength of terror and fear.” Natanyahu reaffirmed previous remarks to the United Nations that “Hamas is ISIS and ISIS is Hamas” and said that he would never negotiate with Hamas as long as it “remains committed to [Israel's] destruction.”

In addition to combatting ISIS, Netanyahu said Israel and other moderate Arab states see Iran’s nuclear program as a “twin” challenge that goes hand-in-hand with stopping the spread of radical Islam.

“They all want to get rid of Israel on their way to the Great Satan,” he said. “We’re just the little Satan. The Great Satan is the United States.”

Netanyahu said the biggest security threat in the Middle East is not border disputes but “what lies on the other side,” saying that militant Islam is “walking into the cracks” of Middle Eastern states and citing Hamas and Hezbollah presence in Gaza and Lebanon, respectively, as examples.

The prime minister said that he trusts Obama “to do what is important for the United States” but that “the jury is out on all of us” to combat these threats.

“We’re going to be tested, all of us,” Netanyahu said. “Ultimately, it’s not what we intended to do, it’s what we end up doing, especially what we end up preventing.”

Netanyahu also reaffirmed his hope for a two-state solution with Israelis and Palestinians after a summer of violent conflict between the Israeli military and Hamas forces in Gaza that saw more than 2,000 Palestinians killed.

“I remain committed to a vision of peace, of two states for two peoples, two nation-states, one for the Palestinian people, one for the Jewish people living in mutual recognition with solid security arrangements on the ground to defend Israel, to keep the peace and to defend Israel in case the peace unravels,” he said.

TIME Middle East

Video Depicts ISIS Execution of British Aid Worker, Threatens American

Alan Henning was thought to have been abducted in Syria last December

Updated Saturday, Oct. 4

A video released Friday by the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) appears to show the execution of British aid worker Alan Henning. A man identified as Peter Edward Kassig, an American, is then threatened with a similar fate.

U.S. intelligence officials had not yet authenticated the video Friday evening, but it follows the pattern of other execution videos released by ISIS. “The brutal murder of Alan Henning by [ISIS] shows just how barbaric these terrorists are,” British Prime Minister David Cameron wrote on Twitter. “My thoughts are with his wife and their children.”

The White House also released a statement:

“The United States strongly condemns the brutal murder of United Kingdom citizen Alan Henning by the terrorist group ISIL. Mr. Henning worked to help improve the lives of the Syrian people and his death is a great loss for them, for his family and the people of the United Kingdom. Standing together with our UK friends and allies, we will work to bring the perpetrators of Alan’s murder – as well as the murders of Jim Foley, Steven Sotloff and David Haines – to justice. Standing together with a broad coalition of allies and partners, we will continue taking decisive action to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.”

Henning, 47, was thought to have been abducted in Syria last December, shortly after crossing the border from Turkey in an aid convoy. Henning’s wife and family released the following statement Saturday morning:

Alan, my husband, and father of Lucy and Adam, was kidnapped in Syria in December last year. Last night we received news of his murder by ISIL. It is the news we hoped we would never hear. As a family we are devastated by the news of his death. There are few words to describe how we feel at this moment. Myself, Lucy and Adam, and all of Alan’s family and friends are numb with grief.

During this ordeal we have relied heavily on the support of many people. That support from the Government, FCO and GMP has been there from the start and has meant that we were able to get through the most awful of times. We always knew that Alan was in the most dangerous of situations but we hoped that he would return home to us. That is not to be.

On behalf of the entire family, I want to thank everyone who campaigned for Alan’s release, who held vigils to pray for his safe return, and who condemned those who took him. Your efforts were a great support to us, and we take comfort in knowing how many people stood beside us in hoping for the best.

Alan was a decent, caring human being. His interest was in the welfare of others. He will be remembered for this and we as a family are extremely proud of him and what he achieved and the people he helped.

We now need time to come to terms with our loss. We would therefore be grateful if our privacy could be respected at this time.

The video is similar to three earlier execution videos released by ISIS since Aug. 19, which showed the beheadings of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and most recently of British aid worker David Haines.

Kassig, a former Army Ranger who deployed to Iraq in 2007, spoke with TIME in January 2013 about his humanitarian work and beginning an aid group called Special Emergency Response and Assistance.

“I started SERA because I felt that we could fill a niche as an organization that had not been filled. There are a lot of other wonderful organizations out there but we feel that by working directly with the people who are in need at a grassroots level allows for us to establish an invaluable personal relationship that not only allows us to effectively distribute material goods but also allows for an opportunity for an increased level of cooperation and an exchange of ideas between people from diverse backgrounds and experiences and that this enhances our ability to accurately meet needs. The personal connection is key.”

Kassig’s family released this video statement Saturday morning:

TIME Iraq

Officials: Islamic State Group Downs Iraqi Chopper

(BAGHDAD) — Officials in Iraq say an Iraqi military attack helicopter has been shot down by Islamic State group militants in the country’s north.

An official with the Iraqi Defense Ministry says the Mi-35 helicopter was brought down Friday by a rocket launcher between the towns of Beiji and al-Senniyah in northern Iraq.

An official with the Iraqi air force corroborated the information, saying the helicopter’s pilot and co-pilot were killed.

Beiji, located 200 kilometers (130 miles) north of Baghdad, is home to Iraq’s biggest oil refinery.

Both officials spoke anonymously as they are not authorized to speak with journalists.

TIME Pentagon

The Pentagon Doesn’t Know What to Call Its Operation Against ISIS

Lt. General William Mayville Jr. Briefs The Media At Pentagon On Recent Strikes Against ISIL In Syria
Lt. Gen. William C. Mayville Jr. speaks about the Syrian bombing campaign September 23, 2014 in Washington, D.C. Mark Wilson—Getty Images

Operation Inherent Resolve was deemed “just kind of bleh” by one military officer

After two months of military operations against or related to the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), the Pentagon still doesn’t known what, exactly, to call the mission.

Top military brass is still trying to find a fitting name for the operation as classified Pentagon PowerPoint slides tentatively call “Operations in Iraq and Syria,” the Wall Street Journal reports.

Officials rejected the latest name nomination, “Operation Inherent Resolve.”

“It is just kind of bleh,” said one officer.

The ISIS mission name search is in keeping with an operations nicknaming tradition extending back in the U.S. to World War II. The 1989 invasion of Panama added another layer to the military mission naming question after officials realized the propaganda value of a name; that mission was called “Operation Blue Spoon” until it was renamed “Operation Just Cause.”

[WSJ]

TIME Australia

Australia Will Commit Troops and Jets to Iraq, PM Says

Tony Abbott
Prime Minister Tony Abbott of Australia addresses the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters, Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014. Jason DeCrow—AP

There will be 200 special forces troops deployed alongside 8 fighter jets

Australia will put troops on the ground in Iraq and assist in airstrikes to help fight ISIS (also known as ISIL) — the first time the nation has committed itself militarily in Iraq, the Sydney Morning Herald reports.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said in a televised news conference that 200 Special Forces troops will be deployed to “advise and assist” the Iraqi army as it seeks to scorch out the terrorist group. Meanwhile, up to eight of the nation’s Super Hornet fighters will be flown in for airstrikes, the Herald reports.

“I have to warn that this deployment to Iraq could be quite lengthy, certainly months rather than weeks,” Abbott said. “I want to reassure the Australian people that it will be as long as it needs to be, but as short as it possibly can be.”

Until now, Australian aircraft have flown into Iraq to contribute humanitarian aid, as well as distribute arms to Iraqi forces, Reuters reports. Abbott said that the mission should not be understood as a “war” — since the forces will be fighting an insurgency and not a state government — but as an expansion of Australia’s humanitarian mission, the Herald says.

“It is an essentially humanitarian mission, yes, it is a combat deployment but it is an essentially humanitarian mission to protect the people of Iraq and ultimately the people of Australia from the murderous rage of the ISIL death cult,” said Abbott, reports The Herald.

Though it was anticipated that Australia would join the U.S.-led effort bombing campaign against Islamic State targets Iraq, it was less expected that Australia would commit to putting troops on the ground, Reuters said.

Australia officials have joined with other Western governments in expressing heightened alarm at the number of their citizens who have gone to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS, as well as at evidence that some of those people have since returned home — battle-hardened and indoctrinated.

Reuters reports that 160 Australians are believed to be fighting in the Middle East, 20 of whom have come back to Australia, according to Australian official estimates.

TIME Iraq

In Squalid Exile, Iraqi Yazidis Hope for Return

Mideast Iraq Yazidis
An internally displaced Yazidi, who fled from an Iraqi town after advances by Islamic militants, takes shelter at a school in Dahuk, northwest of Baghdad, on Oct. 2, 2014 Hadi Mizban—AP

The U.N. estimates that more than 1.8 million Iraqis were displaced this year as the militant group violently swept across western and northern Iraq

(DAHUK, IRAQ) — One of the most haunting memories 70-year old Aishan Ali Dirbou has of her encounter with Islamic State militants who overran her hometown is feeling the ends of their AK-47 assault rifles dig into her side as she lay face down, pretending to be dead.

Today, the widow is one of tens of thousands of members of Iraq’s Yazidi religious minority, who after fleeing the town of Sinjar last month, are now living in squalor in unsanitary shelters and camps, with little food or water and no medicine — uncertain what their future holds.

The Kurdish military says it is now on a push toward Sinjar, located in the desert of northwestern Iraq near the Syrian border, in an assault aimed at retaking the town from the extremists. The past week, Kurdish fighters retook three towns just north of Sinjar — Mahmoudiyah, the Rabia border cross and the town of Zumar — with the help of U.S.-led airstrikes.

The Yazidis now living in the Kurdish city of Dahuk are cautiously optimistic —wary after having already lost so much, but hopeful to return home and pick up the pieces.

At the Badlees Primary School, nearly 250 Yazidis are crammed in, some of them 28 to a room. Many are growing desperate, with nothing but handouts to feed them, and the clothes on their backs to keep them warm as winter creeps closer. The Kurdish government has provided some aid in the way of foodstuffs and thin cushions to sleep on, but the central government in Baghdad has made no contact, the refugees said.

Three families gathered around a small pan of eggs, sharing piece of bread among them. Outside, dozens of eggshells littered the ground alongside a tiny portable stove used to cook for all the residents. Outside, children fill up containers with water from a tank on the playground, but the water is not clean enough to drink. Inside, a woman washes children’s clothes in a small muddy tub.

The rainy season has begun in this mountain city. Earlier this week, a few inches of rain flooded the school, packing the grounds where families sleep and children play with several inches of soggy mud.

They spoke of harrowing ordeals when the Islamic State group militants — who consider the Yazidis a heretical sect — stormed into Sinjar and nearby villages. The United Nations estimates that more than 1.8 million Iraqis were displaced this year as the militant group violently swept across western and northern Iraq.

Tens of thousands of Sinjar residents quickly fled into the nearby mountain range. Dirbou said she had no way out and no one to come to her rescue. When the gunmen swept by her home, Dirbou said she played dead. The gunmen prodded her with their rifles, then moved on.

For six days, she walked — and when she couldn’t walk, she crawled — attempting to make her way to the Sinjar Mountains. When she was spotted by a few militant sympathizers, they took pity on her, giving her a piece of bread to hold her over. After 10 days on the mountain, she and others were rescued in an airlift and taken to Dahuk. There she was reunited with her daughters and their families — but many of her other relatives are missing, prolonging the ordeal.

“The fear has not stopped just because we ran from Daesh,” she said, using the Islamic State group’s Arabic acronym. “Sometimes I believe I was lucky to get away, but other times I feel it (would have been) better to die.”

Other Yazidis in Dahuk recounted stories of babies and elderly relatives being shot by the militants

“Where is God?” asked Amal, one of few Muslim Sinjaris staying at the school. She withheld her last name out of fear. “I am sure some of us will not survive to see Sinjar again.”

Many of them are missing loved ones and say the militants captured their sisters and daughters, taking them to unknown locations, for unknown reasons.

“My father and mother were killed,” said Renaz Ravo, 16, a Yazidi who said her sister was taken captive by the militants along with dozens of other women. “I wish I could go look for her.”

At least a dozen families who spoke to The Associated Press reported missing female relatives, many of them saying the last word they had last received from the missing girls is that they were in the town of Tal Afar, one of the militant’s biggest strongholds in Iraq. They were eager to provide names and offer any information about their whereabouts in the hope they can be found.

In August, officials with the Iraqi Human Rights Ministry said that hundreds of Yazidi women and girls had been taken by the Islamic State militants. Yazidi lawmaker Vian Dakheel made an emotional plea in parliament to save the women, saying they’re being used by the jihadi fighters as slaves.

At the Badlees School, the families all asked eagerly for news about the Kurdish forces’ offensive toward Sinjar. Their hopes for its success were tempered.

When asked about the possibility of returning home, almost all gave a cautious reply — “Allah kareem,” Arabic for “God is generous.”

TIME World

Leon Panetta: How the White House Misplayed Iraqi Troop Talks

U.S. Defense Secretary Panetta Visits Afghanistan
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta speaks to the troops during a visit to Kandahar Airfield on Dec. 13, 2013 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Getty Images

Leon Panetta served as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 2009 to 2011, and as secretary of defense from 2011 to 2013.

As U.S. forces return to Iraq to counter the surging al-Qaeda splinter group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, President Obama’s former Secretary of Defense and CIA chief recalls the White House debates that led to America’s departure from the country. His new book, with Jim Newton, Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace, from which this article is adapted, will be published on Oct. 7.

Through the fall of 2011, the main question facing the American military in Iraq was what our role would be now that combat operations were over. When President Obama announced the end of our combat mission in August 2010, he acknowledged that we would maintain troops for a while. Now that the deadline was upon us, however, it was clear to me—and many others—that withdrawing all our forces would endanger the fragile stability then barely holding Iraq together.

Privately, the various leadership factions in Iraq all confided that they wanted some U.S. forces to remain as a bulwark against sectarian violence. But none was willing to take that position publicly, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki concluded that any Status of Forces Agreement, which would give legal protection to those forces, would have to be submitted to the Iraqi parliament for approval. That made reaching agreement very difficult given the internal politics of Iraq, but representatives of the Defense and State departments, with scrutiny from the White House, tried to reach a deal.

We had leverage. We could, for instance, have threatened to withdraw reconstruction aid to Iraq if al-Maliki would not support some sort of continued U.S. military presence. My fear, as I voiced to the President and others, was that if the country split apart or slid back into the violence that we’d seen in the years immediately following the U.S. invasion, it could become a new haven for terrorists to plot attacks against the U.S. Iraq’s stability was not only in Iraq’s interest but also in ours. I privately and publicly advocated for a residual force that could provide training and security for Iraq’s military.

Under Secretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy did her best to press that position, which reflected not just my views but also those of the military commanders in the region and the Joint Chiefs. But the President’s team at the White House pushed back, and the differences occasionally became heated. Flournoy argued our case, and those on our side viewed the White House as so eager to rid itself of Iraq that it was willing to withdraw rather than lock in arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests.

We debated with al-Maliki even as we debated among ourselves, with time running out. The clock wound down in December, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter continued to argue our case, extending the deadline for the Iraqis to act, hoping that we might pull out a last-minute agreement and recognizing that once our forces left, it would be essentially impossible for them to turn around and return. To my frustration, the White House coordinated the negotiations but never really led them. Officials there seemed content to endorse an agreement if State and Defense could reach one, but without the President’s active advocacy, al-Maliki was allowed to slip away. The deal never materialized. To this day, I believe that a small U.S. troop presence in Iraq could have effectively advised the Iraqi military on how to deal with al-Qaeda’s resurgence and the sectarian violence that has engulfed the country.

Over the following two and a half years, the situation in Iraq slowly deteriorated. Al-Maliki was responsible, as he exacerbated the deep sectarian issues polarizing his country. Meanwhile, with the conflict in Syria raging, an al-Qaeda offshoot—ISIS, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria—gained strength. Using Syria as its base, it began to move into Iraq in 2014, grabbing power in towns and villages across Iraq’s north, including Mosul and Tall ‘Afar. These were strategically important cities that U.S. forces had fought and died to secure.

The news from Iraq bothered me to no end. In my view, the ISIS offensive in 2014 greatly increases the risk that Iraq will become al-Qaeda’s next safe haven. That is exactly what it had in Afghanistan pre-9/11. After all we have done to decimate al-Qaeda’s senior leadership and its core, those efforts will be for naught if we allow it to rebuild a base of operations in the Middle East.

From Worthy Fights, by Leon Panetta and Jim Newton, to be published on October 7, 2014 by The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC. Copyright © 2014 by Leon Panetta.

Leon Panetta served as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 2009 to 2011, and as secretary of defense from 2011 to 2013. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1977 to 1993, the director of the Office of Management and Budget from 1993 to 1994, and President Clinton’s chief of staff from 1994 to 1997. He is the founder of the Panetta Institute for Public Policy, and has served as professor of public policy at his alma mater, Santa Clara University.

Jim Newton is an editor at large of the Los Angeles Times, where he has worked for twenty-five years as a reporter, an editor, a bureau chief, and a columnist. He is the author of two critically acclaimed biographies, Justice for All and Eisenhower.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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